How to Care for a Holiday Cactus

With a little know-how and some careful timing, you can keep your Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus blooming year after year.

  • Schlumbergera plants are epiphytes hailing from the rainforests of Brazil, where they grow wild in the branches of trees; however, most people opt to house their plants in pots rather than trees.
    Photo by Getty/-101PHOTO-
  • Cultivated in England by William Buckley, the “true” Christmas cactus is a hybrid.
    Photo by Adobe/©ola_pisarenko
  • The Thanksgiving cactus is native to Brazil, where it grows wild in Rio de Janeiro.
    Photo by Wikimedia/Neelix
  • After the first flowers open, expect your cactus to remain in bloom with a steady succession of new flowers over a period of several weeks.
    Photo by Adobe/bozhena_melnyk
  • If in doubt about what species of Schlumbergera you’re looking at, check the stem segments. Thanksgiving cactuses have pointed edges, reminiscent of a crab’s claw.
    Photo by Flickr/Mark Levisay
  • If in doubt about what species of Schlumbergera you’re looking at, check the stem segments. Christmas cactuses have smooth, round edges.
    Photo by Getty/alexmak72427

The local column in the December 23, 1915, edition of a rural New York newspaper noted a variety of newsworthy tidbits, including the fact that Miss Halwick was expected home for the holidays, that Mr. Green had back pain and was “confined to his home for several days,” and that Mrs. Van Etten had a Christmas cactus “in bloom for the holidays.”

The blooming of your cactus probably won’t make the society column in your local newspaper, but it is an exciting occasion, especially if the blooms coincide with the holiday season. Here’s how to put the odds of success in your favor.

Christmas Cactus Confusion

If there’s one thing that’s certain about plants in the Schlumbergera genus, it’s that the nomenclature is a little confusing. Common names tend to be used interchangeably within the genus, and plants are often mislabeled. Many of the plants sold as Christmas cactuses (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) are actually Thanksgiving cactuses (Schlumbergera truncata) timed to bloom at Christmas. (In subsequent years, people often wonder why their “Christmas” cactus plants bloom naturally at Thanksgiving.) The dividing line between these two cactus species gets a bit blurry at times, but here are the basics:

The Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata) has been in cultivation for 200 years. The plants are recognizable by their pointy-edged “leaves” and habit of blooming in November. (Crab cactus is another popular name for S. truncata, so called because its pointed leaves are reminiscent of a crab’s claws.)

Christmas cactus (S. x buckleyi) is a hybrid — believed to be a cross between S. truncata and S. russelliana. Traditionally, S. x buckleyi have a more rounded edge to their leaf-like stem segments, and bloom in December. History credits a man named William Buckley with the original cultivation of the hybrid in England in the 1850s.

These species, along with the Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri), are often called “holiday” cactuses. Aside from slight differences in leaf type and natural bloom time, the fundamentals of Christmas cactuses and Thanksgiving cactuses are essentially the same, including the basics of plant care. So, whether you have a “true” Christmas cactus or a Thanksgiving cactus in disguise, you can get beautiful blooms in time for the holiday season by following some simple steps.

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